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Pro-unity supporters fill Barcelona streets

Rally largest display of support for unified Spain yet

BARCELONA: Hundreds of thousands of supporters of a unified Spain filled Barcelona's streets yesterday in one of the biggest shows of force yet by the so-called silent majority that has watched as regional political leaders push for Catalan independence.

A million people joined in favour of Spanish unity, the central government's representative in Catalonia said, while municipal police estimated turnout at 300,000.

Political parties opposing a split by Catalonia from Spain had a small lead in an opinion poll published yesterday, the first since Madrid called a regional election to try to resolve the country's worst political crisis in four decades.

Polls and recent elections have shown that about half the electorate in the wealthy north-eastern region, which was autonomous, oppose secession from Spain, but a vocal independence movement has brought the crisis to a head.

Spain's central government called an election for Dec 21 last Friday after sacking Catalonia's president Carles Puigdemont, dissolving its Parliament and dismissing its government.

BOYCOTTED

That followed the assembly's unilateral declaration of independence in a vote boycotted by three national parties.

The regional government claimed it had a mandate to push ahead with independence following an unofficial referendum on Oct 1, which was ruled illegal under Spanish law and mostly boycotted by unionists.

Waving thousands of Spanish flags and singing "Viva Espana", protesters yesterday turned out in the largest display of support for a united Spain since the beginning of the crisis - underlining the depth of division in Catalonia itself.

"I am here to defend Spanish unity and the law," said Mr Alfonso Machado, 55, a salesman.

"Knowing in the end there won't be independence, I feel sorry for all the people tricked into thinking there could be and the divisions they have driven through Catalan society."

A poll of 1,000 people for newspaper El Mundo, which opposes independence, showed anti-independence parties winning 43.4 per cent support and pro-independence parties 42.5 per cent. - REUTERS

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